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Ports and Waterways

American ports and inland waterways are another important way that we move goods in our country. ASCE gives our ports a B+, the highest grade that they gave any category of infrastructure. It is also one of the most rapidly improving categories, improving a full grade from the C+ they earned in 2017. The B+ is also beyond the ASCE target of a B for increased funding. On the other hand, our inland waterways infrastructure, much of which facilitates moving goods on the Mississippi and other major river systems, received a D+, up from a D in 2017. ASCE estimates that $2.5 billion per year is required to bring inland waterways up to a B.

The Biden Administration proposed $1.7 billion in new spending per year for both ports and inland waterways, which is 68% of the ASCE estimated need and a 94% increase in federal baseline funding. Senate Republicans call for $1 billion, which is 40% of the ASCE estimated need and a 56% increase in federal funding. CSC, now with President Biden’s support, calls for $3.3 billion, which is 130% of the need and a 181% increase in federal funding. PSC’s plan includes $1.5 billion, which is 58% of the estimated need and an 81% increase in federal funding.

The Case for a Big Investment

Democratic and Republican proponents observe that moving goods by water is more cost and energy efficient even than moving them by rail and much more cost effective than by truck.

The Case for a Smaller Investment

Proponents for a smaller investment point to the ASCE grade of B+ for ports. With the highest grade of all categories of infrastructure evaluated and an improving grade, they argue, ports are simply an unwise place to significantly increase federal funding. While the ASCE grade of D+ for inland waterways indicates a greater need for investment, proponents of a more modest investment emphasize that their condition is improving at current levels of federal investment. Given these grades, they argue, even the Senate Republican’s call for a 56% increase in combined federal spending for ports and inland waterways is excessive. The other three plans are even more excessive, they argue.

The Evidence

A 2017 update of the report by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University found that it is 70 times more fuel efficient to move dry cargo by barge than by truck and 16 times more fuel efficient than by rail. ASCE reported that the tonnage at America’s top ports grew by 4.4% from 2015 to 2019.